Wednesday, October 28, 2009

`A Feeble Gloria to this Cool Decay'

A retired English professor writes about his recent return to favorite poems of autumn, starting with the obvious, Keats’:

“`To Autumn’ is the masterpiece of the `genre’ with its concentrated tactile imagery, etc, but I didn't think it said it all, so I went to James Thomson's Autumn in `The Seasons.’ I wrote a chapter in my dissertation on Thomson, but hadn't looked into him for some time. I should have because I find him, as they used to say, pleasing. (If you have a copy of his poems look up his wonderful `To the Memory of Sir Isaak Newton,’ written for Newton's State Funeral--the first ever held for a commoner.) Also, Thomson led me to Virgil's Georgics (David Ferry's translation, though my sentimental favorite is still that of Dryden). Then I turned to Spenser's `The Shepheardes Calender’ (I spent much of my first term in graduate school reading Spenser entire, and the one work that puzzled me was the `Calender.’ That was then; I'm an Anglican now and find it great). Finally, I recalled William Collins's `Ode to Evening.’ I recalled wrong. The one line referring to Autumn reads, `While sallow Autumn fills thy lap with leaves.’ Oh well, it's a fine poem anyway.”

What a comfort it must be to have read much and to have done so with sufficient attentiveness to draw upon it freely, in one’s ninth decade, like crystalline water from a spring. Spenser’s poem I don’t know. He remains the major poet in English whose work I know least. I have never read all of The Faerie Queene. Besides obvious poems by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats and Wallace Stevens, my autumnal album includes “Autumn” by R.S. Thomas (from the four-poem suite, “The Seasons,” collected in Mass for Hard Times, 1992):

“Happy the leaves
burnishing their own
downfall. Life dances
upon life’s grave.
It is we who inject
sadness into the migrant’s
cry. We are so long
in dying – time granted
to discover a purpose
in our decay? Could
we be cut open,
would there be more than
the saw’s wound, all
humanity’s rings widening
only toward ageing?
To creep in for shelter
under the bone’s tree
is to be charred by time’s
lightning stroke. The leaves
fall variously as do thought
to reveal the bareness
of the mind’s landscape
through which we must press on
towards the openness of its horizons.”

The poem’s conclusion is a falling-off, but the lines I like best are Thomas’ description of falling leaves: “Life dances / upon life’s grave.” Who would have thought a new and memorable statement of such a hackneyed image was possible? Another favorite, with a similar theme (life-in-death), is from Anthony Hecht, not often judged a “nature poet.” “An Autumnal” was collected in Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977). Here the final two of the poem’s six stanzas:

“A deep, familiar essence of the year:
A sweet fetor, a ghost
Of foison, gently welcoming us near
To humus, mulch, compost.

“The last mosquitoes lazily hum and play
Above the yeasting earth
A feeble Gloria to this cool decay
Or casual dirge of birth.”

For what it’s worth, Hecht takes his volume’s title (and the long title poem within), Millions of Strange Shadows, from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 53:

“What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.
Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen's cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:
Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.
In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.”

“Foison,” meaning a bountiful harvest, appears in both the sonnet and Hecht’s “An Autumnal.” Shakespeare’s “foison of the year” means harvest time – that is, autumn.


Anonymous said...

I enjoy your ruminations on poetry, and your substantial quotations either are a pleasure in themselves or send me to the source for more. But I do have a quick suggestion about formatting of those poems (says the teacher in me). When you offset quotations, as you often do, you don't need the quotation marks around those quotations. You need quotation marks only when you are quoting within a paragraph.

Thanks for today's post and many of the others---

bachiolator said...

It may seem ungrateful to say, with reference to "To Autumn", but Keats cheats. It is a damn lot of work to gather in the harvest, and there is no mention of that in his otherwise excellent poem. (Or any others in that genre, which I've read. Counter-examples?) To be certain, I wish I had his Muse. And I wish he had had to harvest those tree branch bending apples, and hazel shell corn, and honey o'er brimming the clammy cells, blah blah blah. . . . .

says Pauli, a Gloversville semi-cynical dog.

Donald said...

Autumn in my part of the world just means warm days rather than hot, but I have always loved A.D. Hope's poem set in a northern autumn, "Ode on the Death of Pope Pius XII":

Something that since a child I longed to see,
This miracle of the other hemisphere:
Whole forests in their annual ecstasy
Waked by the dying year.

Sam said...

"Waked by the dying year" is nice.

This post reminds me of how many poems naturally come to mind in the autumn. I often think of Auden ("now the leaves are falling fast"), of Larkin ("the leaves fall in ones and twos") and of Housman's "russet floors" and "leafy dells."

Happy to be reminded too of Thomson, whose "Winter" is always fun to read on a snowy day. I had never read Thomson's "Newton" -- great stuff. "Whose piercing mental eye diffusive saw / The finished university of things."